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The ever-widening income gap

We are only 10 years away from the version of hell envisioned by Fritz Lang when he made the classic movie Metropolis: In the year 2006, workers toil and scrape beneath the ground while the pampered rich frolic overhead, lifted high in luxury by their money.

That was Lang's science fiction, his vision of life to come as seen from the vantage point of 70 years ago. His depiction of the extremes was grotesque. But was it entirely fantasy?

In far less dramatic terms, the Census Bureau recently laid out a similar horror story. In a report entitled "A Brief Look at Postwar U.S. Income Inequality," the bureau said the gap between high earners and others is wider now than it has been since the end of World War II. According to the bureau's figures, 20 percent of workers get nearly 50 percent of income in this country now.

The income gap began to widen in 1968 and has continued to grow throughout different political administrations and economic cycles. The share of income that went to the top 20 percent of households increased to 46.9 percent by 1994, the last year for which complete statistics are available. The rest of the nation's workers saw their wages either stagnate or decline during the same time. The Census Bureau figured the average income for that top 20 percent of households to be $105,945 in 1994 while the bottom 20 percent averaged$7,762 in pay.

The Census Bureau came up with several reasons for the income gap. But the most basic one is a shift from manufacturing jobs that often paid lower-skilled workers fairly good wages to jobs that require advanced skills and higher education, like those in computer technology.

Such a fundamental shift requires change in the work force, change that is not easily within the grasp of all workers: training and education; retraining and re-education. Neither is it entirely within the grasp of governments, especially in these days of declining resources.

Where does that lead us? To the private sector, which must make it a trend to help workers transform themselves to the new workplace. Already many of the companies that so drastically downsized a little while ago are seeing that they cut too many workers and are hiring again. In the meantime, chief executive officers can start by doing what the president urged when he called them to Washington in May to talk about how much companies can gain by sharing their wealth with their employees.

Probably the most frightening aspect of the Census Bureau report is wondering whether the widening income gap, already in place for so many years, could become a permanent fixture of the American workplace. If it does, we could find ourselves in the hell of Metropolis.

Sharon Bond is an editorial writer for the Times.